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Students take action to learn more about the Global Goals for sustainable development

The Global Goals: Take Action conference, which took place at the end of April, brought together undergraduate and postgraduate students from UCL, LSHTM, SOAS, RVC and Birkbeck, and other institutions.

The aim of the event, which was jointly organised by LIDC and the Institute for Global Prosperity, with support from UCL Grand Challenges, was to encourage students to engage with the debates surrounding the implementation of the goals, and provide them with information on how they can advocate their attainment.

In his opening remarks, LIDC director Jeff Waage, told delegates that they would be embarking on careers that would be concurrent with the time-frame of the goals and, whatever their chosen path in the future, they would have the opportunity to be innovative, to challenge traditional mindsets and to conceive new and different ways of taking action on development. He said many of those present were ‘millennials’ and the progress and extent to which the goals would be achieved would depend on their generation.  He also emphasised that the SDGs should not be considered just as a blueprint for an aid programme, they are an agenda for a collective global effort.


The morning session kicked off with a panel discussion. The speakers were Dr Sarah Bell from UCL’s Department of Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering, Professor Sir Andy Haines from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Karen Newman, policy and advocacy advisor with the Population Sustainability Network. Each speaker gave their analysis of the cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary nature of the SDGs, their shared dynamics and their universality.

Dr. Sarah Bell: “It's important not to look at the Goals in isolation, but to look at how they interact “

Professor Sir Andy Haines: “We have to emphasise policies that will reach some of the short term goals and targets”

Karen Newman: “Population dynamics are the common denominator of all the SDGs”

Focus Groups

Students were able to have more focused discussions on the SDGs with specialists in different disciplines. There were six themed workshops around clusters of goals, and students attended three sessions of their choice.  The specialists were a combination of academics and professionals who work in development. The participating organisations were ActionAid, Climate Action, Dfid, ODI and Think Global.

Moderators from each of the six workshops reported back to conference in the afternoon session, and the consensus was that the workshops had produced stimulating and wide-ranging conversations.  Three themes emerged that were common to each of the sessions:

  • The need to appreciate the complexity of the SDGs and to prioritise
  • The rapid and increasing pace of change in modern society
  • The relationship with the private sector

Historic opportunity

The keynote address was given by Nik Hartley, CEO of Restless Development who underscored the importance of mobilising young people to deliver on sustainable and inclusive development.  He told the conference that the world is currently in the era of ‘peak youth’ where there are now more young people, aged 18 to 24, than ever before. He said the trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and means that the world now has an historic opportunity to harness the power and energy of young people everywhere to make the global goals a reality.  In keeping with the theme of the conference, Nik Hartley called on delegates to take action but said that the challenge is to ensure that control for development rests with those who should benefit the most.


The conference was a full and busy day of activity and some delegates wished that they had had more than the allocated 30 minutes for each focus group session.  But despite the packed schedule, students felt that they had learnt a lot, had participated in meaningful and insightful conversations, and had ended the day feeling inspired.

The main points from each of the workshops were:

Health and Population (focusing on Goals 3, 6)

Although primarily Goal 3, good health and well-being underpins all of the others.  Health programmes that are preventative as well as prescriptive should be introduced from an early stage and implemented in schools. ‘Invisible’ and marginalised populations should be seen, targeted and counted, to ensure health initiatives are inclusive.  Community groups and civil society can play an advocacy role from the grass roots, but just as  important, is having powerful ‘champions’ who can effect change from the top.

Economic Growth (focusing on Goals 1, 2, 8, 10, 12)

The combination of the five goals has nearly 50 targets associated with them and that raised the issue of ‘measurement’.  Eradicating extreme poverty, as defined by the international poverty line, might be achievable by 2030, but progress on meeting national targets of halving poverty, or reducing inequality, based on national benchmarks, will be more difficult. The SDG agenda cannot be achieved without the commitment and partnerships with the private sector and the one of the tasks of civil society groups should be to hold both the private sector and states to account. 

Education and Gender (focusing on Goals 4, 5)

The goals pertaining to gender and education are broader than the preceding MDGs which were criticised for being too narrow.  But the new SDG targets require more attention to governance and accountability and poses questions on how to prioritise the goals, and the targets within goals.  There are also questions with reference to Education, regarding who defines the need and are there wider goals about citizenship, should quality take precedence over success, and are the skilled personnel in place. Financing is a critical constraint, and radical policies of transferring resources, for example, from military spending, is required.

Governance (focusing on Goals 16, 17)

Definitions and clarity are important, and questions were raised about what is meant by strong institutions and at what level – domestic, global, transnational?  There is recognition for reform on issues such as the tax base, as necessary for underpinning strong national institutions, and taxation is an issue that can win public support. Challenges around governance, and the understanding of ‘good governance’ are more prominent due to China’s role and new models of promoting economic growth through south-south collaboration that place less emphasis on political reform.  The business case for SDG delivery the requirement of the private sector to assist in governance objectives are important, but has to be matched with regulatory framework for accountability.

Environment (reflecting Goals 13, 14, 15)

Making money should not cost the earth and incentives for political support need to be direct and personal. Education and awareness are key, with learning also directed at leaders. There were discussions on the notion of a ‘selfish gene’ in privileged classes as a factor contributing to biodiversity loss and environmental change and on tendency to defer responsibility for tackling these complex problems to government agencies. A collective, consensual spirit, inclusive of markets and corporations is needed, and would represent a paradigm shift. The potential paradox of increased efficiency resulting in increased consumption highlights the conflictual nature of the goals and difficulties in prioritising goals and achieving balance.

Innovation and technology (focusing on Goals 7, 9, 11)

The transformative power of technologies and innovation are desirable but at the same time raises concerns around ownership and control. The capacity to outpace all other dimensions of change can also be problematic, if it leads to an over-reliance on technology and little time for assessment and review. A regulatory framework to manage change could be devised by ‘humanity’ and not necessarily reside within the domain of governments. Businesses and philanthropy can be drivers of technology and building resilient communities but technology is not enough. Education and energising citizens and trainers who can move around and share expertise will be immensely important.

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